Beyond the typical exterior of the Mactan Shrine park, where both public and private transportation traverse forming part of the daily grind of Punta Engaño, Lapu-Lapu City lies the hallow ground, where one fateful day a long time ago, a fierce battle was fought in the name of freedom and love. That battle was then centuries later dubbed as the ‘Battle of Mactan’.
The Battle of Mactan: The Fight that Started It All
One cannot separate the relevance of the Battle of Mactan from the Mactan Shrine or the significance of the latter from the former in as far as the parallel historical connotation of both is concerned. As the Battle of Mactan planted the very first seed of nationalism and autonomy along the then [perhaps] jagged coast of Mactan Island, the Mactan Shrine, in turn opines this gallant crusade, embracing fervently the memories of the perilous adventure in the dim and distant past.
On March 16, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan (a.k.a. Fernão de Magalhães) a Portuguese explorer and conquistador commissioned by Spain made his first landing in the Philippines via Homonhon Island, in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, where he openly claimed a portion of the Philippine archipelago, specifically the ones he had seen as part of the possessions of the King of Spain and as such, named them ‘Islas de San Lazaro’ or ‘Archipelago of Saint Lazarus’.
A few weeks after, Magellan and his crew proceeded with their journey and reached the Island of Cebu, on April 7, 1521, which, at that time was under the kingship of Rajah Humabon. Magellan was auspicious in befriending the local chieftain, and in fact, was as well equally successful in converting the royal family, their kin, and some less than 1000 natives to Christianity. This friendship later ensured allegiance and submission of the nearby local chieftains to the Spanish crown, except for one local chieftain in Mactan Island named Datu Lapu-Lapu.
It is to be noted that in Mactan Island, there were two local chieftains leading two different tribes. One was Datu Zula—who pledged allegiance to Magellan, and thus, accepted the Spanish rule, and the other one was Datu Lapu-Lapu who vehemently resisted the idea.
The Cause of the Battle:
Datu Zula, for his part accepted the friendship of Magellan, and hence, swore loyalty to the king of Spain. Therefore, to uphold his vow, on April 26, 1521, he purposed to send one of his sons to bring two live goats as presents to Magellan as a sign of his loyalty and thus, to fulfill his promise of allegiance; however, this action was preempted by Datu Lapu-Lapu and barred Datu Zula from taking such an action. This provocative act by Lapu-Lapu further deepened the rift between the two Mactan rulers. Datu Zula, unable to send his presents because of Lapu-Lapu’s intervention, bid Magellan to send a boatload of men so he could fight Lapu-Lapu. Instead of one, Magellan nonetheless, sent three boatloads, with sixty of his men, himself included to personally lead the attack. Some of his men disapproved his decision of joining the invasion, but Magellan did not pay heed. Confident of their imminent victory, Magellan tagged along Rajah Humabon to witness the supposed looming European triumph.
Three hours before dawn, on April 27, 1521, Magellan and his troops landed on the sleeping coast of Mactan Island. With the help of a local Muslim merchant who acted as Magellan’s interpreter, Magellan admonished Lapu-Lapu to surrender, yet the latter was still formidably defiant. The premature attack did not happen right away, but Magellan and his men returned to their boats and had to postpone their plan of invasion until in the morning.
According to some historians, Magellan’s victory could be easily guaranteed if not for the terrain of the battleground. Accordingly, the sea was brimming with rock and corals which hindered Magellan’s boats, especially the large ones from approaching the shore and the huge fleets from firing munitions as a support. In fact, Magellan and some of his men had to paddle ‘three crossbow flights’ just to reach the coastline.
With forty-nine men including himself, Magellan undertook a ‘suicidal’ attack against Lapu-Lapu’s approximately 1,500 men, based on the recorded chronicle of Antonio Pigafetta. In this vantage, being under-numbered would mean a clear and easy defeat for Magellan and his men. But it was not the case. Armed with warfare and battle strategies far more advanced than that of the natives’, not to mention the impenetrable battle outfits which seemed invincible, they were still at leverage.
The battle was orchestrated in a manner that Lapu-Lapu’s warriors grouped themselves into three, while Magellan divided his troops into two. Lapu-Lapu’s men attacked the two groups of Magellan around and in front, while Magellan, on the other hand, instructed his men to engage the local fighters with arquebuses and crossbows, and consequently backed with the firing of missiles. Comparing with Europeans’ sturdy war paraphernalia, the native warrior’s spirit remained tenacious. Apparently, the mishandling of the missile usage caused the then-approaching defeat of the Europeans. The wasteful firing of the missiles held up the upper-hand position of the Europeans for but half an hour only, after which, Lapu-Lapu countered Magellan’s missiles by launching a barrage of bows and poisoned arrows, even with some stones. However, the fired weapons seemed to have a little effect as there was only a recorded of eight Europeans who were killed in the entire course of the battle.
The Europeans were wearing ‘corselets and helmets’, and as a consequence, the fired missiles stood a little chance in puncturing their armors. Despite the seemingly invincible front of the invaders, the local warriors’ spirit remained intact. In Magellan’s attempt to distract the local warriors, he ordered two of his men to burn the huts of the natives, which fueled the native warriors’ rage even more. As their fury mounted, they showered more poisoned arrows, which acutely hit Magellan in the legs. It was not clear though if it was a lucky hit on the part of the native warriors or it was a contemplated shot that aimed on the exposed legs of their opponents.
Magellan called for a withdrawal of troops. Most of his men were demoralized, and some fled away, leaving Magellan with only six or eight men to protect him. To ensure the safety of his remaining troops, Magellan with the (six or eight) eight remaining men, covered the retreating soldiers.
According to Pigafetta’s journal, there were only a total of eight deaths, and a large number of unspecified wounded in the part of the Europeans, while, he accounted fifteen killed and an unspecified number of fatalities in the side of Lapu-Lapu.
Mactan Shrine: A Symbol of Valiancy
Many centuries have passed, the very first act of nationalism to defy foreign rule still remained in the hearts of the Filipinos, and as a commemoration to this gallant act, in the very place where the historical Battle of Mactan was instigated was erected a shrine in memory of the greatness of the early Filipinos led by Datu Lapu-Lapu.
The Mactan Shrine is encapsulated in a public park dotted with trees and a variety of tropical floras that accommodates family picnics, outings, lovers’ rendezvous, and sightseeing destination for those curious souls who want to remember the enormity of distant past.
Within the square are souvenir shops, refreshment stalls, and a four-sided obelisk engraved with the names of Hernando de Magallanes (Ferdinand Magellan), as well as Reinando Ysabel II and the words ‘Glorias Españolas’ and ‘Siendo Gobernador Don Miguel Creus’ on each facet. A few meters away towards the coast is where the 20-feet bronze statue of Datu Lapu-Lapu—the locus of the Shrine is situated. In front of the statue is the platform where the actual Battle took place.
To honor the brave and heroic feat of Lapu-Lapu and his warriors against the foreign invaders led by Magellan, the local government of Lapu-Lapu City launched the ‘Kadaugan sa Mactan’ in 1981, and has since then became an annual festival.
The ‘Kadaugan sa Mactan’ or ‘Bahugbahug sa Mactan’ is a week-long festival which commences with a street dancing, and culminates with the re-enactment of the Battle of Mactan at the Mactan Shrine every morning of April 27th, where the start of the dramatization depends greatly on the condition of the tide.